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Pandemic learning loss is a familiar problem but with a larger scope
Sheridan second grade teacher Lynley Yoakum helps Sammy Hanson during a math lesson. Second graders have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, missing much of their foundational first-grade school year. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Oregon’s education leaders say it may take years to repair the emotional and academic damage from students having missed a year-plus of in-person instruction. For now, they are assessing how much learning has been lost and focusing on a rapid recovery.
Sheridan teacher Lynley Yoakum said some of her second graders recognize numbers and letters as if they were still in kindergarten, when the pandemic began.
Vale High School Principal Mary Jo Sharp said she is seeing the worst effects of distance and hybrid learning in sophomores, who were last regularly in class as middle schoolers. They are struggling to manage a full school day and having more behavior problems, especially teacher defiance.
Two months into the widespread state return to in-person classes, this year’s second grade and sophomore classes collectively seem to have suffered the most, but Oregon educators are seeing more academic, social and behavioral problems across the K-12 spectrum. School leaders are confident, though, that they have tried-and-true remedies to help students fill in the gaps to not only catch up, but to move ahead.
“A great deal of effort has been spent on systems and routines of ‘This is how we do school,’” said Sheridan Superintendent Dorie Vickery. “It’s learning how to learn again.”
Schools are accustomed to differentiating for students in the same class and giving extra supports to some. The difference now is the sheer number of students in each class who are behind.
In the Sheridan School District northwest of Salem, only six out of 59 second graders are at grade level in math and only eight are reading at grade level. Half were so low that they couldn’t be tested for reading and had to be tested for early literacy.
Yoakum teaches at Sheridan’s K-8 Faulconer-Chapman School. She said math lessons are mostly grade-level curriculum, but she must read the problems aloud for students whose reading isn’t strong. Students struggle with things like navigating page numbers in a textbook to find a lesson.
Sheridan reassigned an intervention teacher to teach second grade so they could lower class sizes and offer more individual attention.
“Seeing what it was like a couple of years ago compared to now is startling,” said Lisa Heatherly, a Sheridan Title I teacher providing federally funded extra support for students. She said many of the at-risk students she is accustomed to working with are even farther behind now because they were more likely to be disengaged during distance learning and less likely to have home support.
Sheridan has hired additional teachers and created a K-12 care team to provide wraparound supports for all levels.
Faulconer-Chapman Principal Adam DeLatte said his school has a high mobility rate, which makes it harder to catch up students but means teachers are also accustomed to quickly helping students who have fallen behind.
DeLatte said accurate and timely data to identify individual needs is key.
The Oregon Department of Education doesn’t have statewide data to gauge the problem. Oregon had one of the nation’s lowest participation rates for state standardized tests.
Many districts, including Sheridan, are using federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund money to fill in their understanding with more assessment testing and are just starting to see those results. ESSER money has been essential for districts to address immediate challenges and maintain schools’ health and safety. Oregon’s recent additional investment in education, the Student Success Act, will be instrumental in addressing some of the longer term effects, especially with historically underserved students.
Sheridan found that the best-performing class in K-5, the fifth graders, had 63% of students below benchmarks in literacy and 75% below benchmarks in math.
Fifth grader Zythani Reid said last year scared her. She really struggled because she had little practice in using a computer.
“I thought I wasn’t going to make it to fifth grade,” she said.
Faulconer-Chapman has support classes in math and literacy during and after school, and Reid said she is feeling a lot better with the extra help.
Fifth grader Karlee Mode said working from home had been “easier.”
“You wouldn’t have to just sit all day and you actually would not have to write that much,” she said.
Leaders in a half-dozen districts report many in the lower grades don’t have the motor skills for writing, and students of all ages don’t have the stamina for a full day of school.
Oregon’s ninth grade on-track rate, one of the few statewide measures available, showed a significant drop from 85% to 74%. The rate measures whether students have earned a quarter of the necessary credits for graduation by the start of sophomore year. Schools report high schoolers across the board attended or passed fewer classes.
Summer programs funded by federal and state grants helped make up some of that ground.
In the Vale School District in eastern Oregon, 49 students recovered 107.5 credits, according to Principal Sharp. The district got its on-track number up to 90%, although that was still behind recent years.
“I was ecstatic,” said Sharp. She said some students who had been at risk of dropping out were now starting their year ahead.
Sharp said initial academic assessments are not showing a huge loss, although teachers have had to spend more time at the beginning of the year reviewing basic concepts in math and language arts. She said they are also seeing lots of students who simply are not emotionally prepared for school, especially among sophomores.
Cherie Stroud, North Marion School District director of teaching and learning, said the pandemic’s effects are not evenly spread. She said students working on their English language proficiency or who have other learning challenges appear to have greater gaps, but the district is reviewing data.
ODE Director Colt Gill has emphasized that although students might have missed class time, the past year was filled with learning that needs to be recognized.
Stroud said students may have gaps in core areas but they’ve shown growth in areas such as technological skills. Stroud said acknowledging pandemic experiences, such as working with a grandparent in a shop or taking care of siblings, must inform the district’s ongoing work.
Roseburg Superintendent Jared Cordon said the biggest challenge this year is designing a system that provides a year of growth for everyone when some students have surged ahead and many have fallen dramatically behind. He gave the example of kindergarten, where some are reading at a 10-year-old level while some are at a 3-year-old level.
“You want that gap to flatten out a bit, not by slowing down the top end but by speeding the back end up,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA